Toby Keith, the singer-songwriter who dominated country radio in the 1990s and became one of the genre’s most divisive and outspoken celebrities, died yesterday (February 5), The New York Times reports. His website and social media shared the message that Keith died peacefully in the night, surrounded by family, and that he “fought his fight with grace and courage.” Though no cause of death was given, he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2021. Keith was 62 years old.
Born Toby Keith Covel in Clinton, Oklahoma, in 1961, Keith formed his first outfit, the Easy Money Band, in the early 1980s. At the time, he was playing as a defensive end on a semi-pro football team, the Oklahoma City Drillers. He eventually left the team to focus on playing the local honky-tonk circuit before moving to Nashville in the early 1990s, busking and door-knocking on Music Row.
Mercury signed Keith after a flight attendant handed a label executive one of the singer’s demo tapes, and he released his self-titled debut album in 1993. His fluid command of both pop-country and honky-tonk balladry, along with his brash public image, brought swift crossover success. Debut single “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” became the most-played country song of the 1990s. That was one of Keith’s many super-hits that he wrote or co-wrote himself, bucking a trend in country toward outside songwriters; others would include “Who’s That Man,” “How Do You Like Me Now?!,” the Willie Nelson duet “Beer for My Horses,” and “I Love This Bar.”
After September 11, 2001, Keith’s outspoken patriotism escalated. He wrote “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” the lead single of 2002’s Unleashed, partly in tribute to his father, who had died in an accident in 2001. The song—one he was persuaded to record and release after a performance for Pentagon staff—also served as a morale-booster at his concerts for U.S. troops.
In 2003, the Chicks denounced the song (it was “ignorant,” they said, “and it makes country music sound ignorant”), as well as then-President George W. Bush and the Iraq invasion. During the subsequent industry backlash—and amid a flurry of death threats toward the Chicks—Keith took to displaying frontperson Natalie Maines on a concert screen beside Saddam Hussein. (He later expressed mild regret about the feud.) Though he said he was raised a Democrat, his embrace of provocative, sometimes reactionary politics led him to perform, in 2017, at an event celebrating the election of Donald J. Trump.
Keith’s abrasiveness and pop bona fides wrought a spotty relationship with the country establishment, though he received a handful of Country Music Association Awards and was often garlanded by the Academy of Country Music, which named him Entertainer of the Decade in 2011. He was more broadly recognized for his songwriting, including in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 2015, and, later, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.